Drama Peas

As a librarian in Tupelo, a colleague and I were in charge of taking books to those who couldn’t come to us. Every Wednesday we’d load up our trusty little station wagon and drive around the city dropping off new checkouts and picking up returns.

Our main destinations were nursing homes, and they were all, without exception, far from the dismal environments some people might imagine. As a matter of fact, those under care were often robust enough to elbow a neighbor out of the way to get the best Cartlands, Christies, or L’Amours, and if we didn’t have enough copies of the latest John Grisham potboiler, they’d fight over them.

We once had to disarm a dame wielding a plastic knife. During one of these feeding frenzies, a blue stocking with pink hair sniffed and said to me, “They shouldn’t have been taught how to read.”

My partner Beverly, a seasoned veteran, rarely instructed me on nuances, so the assignment was full of pleasant surprises and lessons. We often picked up returns at the nurses’ stations, which are always a nexus of activity. I remember once early on reaching a station just as a produce man was dropping off three bushels peas in the pod.

Being a fugitive kitchen grunt myself, I expected some surly person to appear, haul them in the back, and begin the tedium of shelling them, so I was astounded when at least a dozen ladies came out of the TV room, ripped a pea sack open in seconds, filled up their colanders, and retreated—just yakkin’ up a storm the whole time—back into the TV room.

I was trying to take it all in while Bev started packing up the returned books. Finally I tapped her on the shoulder and asked, “Bev, are they in there shelling peas?”

She looked over at the TV room door and said, “Oh, yes. They love watching soap operas and shelling peas.”

Sure enough, a squadron of ladies had settled into their seats with peas and bowls in their laps and paper sacks on the floor at their sides. They didn’t even look at the peas as they shelled them; their eyes were glued to the drama unfolding before them. The nurse on duty told me that the shelled peas were collected before dinner (I had a vision of some old lady trying to stash HER colander of peas in a bottom drawer), bagged and kept in the refrigerator until cooked or offered to visitors, but “sometimes there’s so much in there, we just end up taking some home to keep them from being wasted.”

Bill Neale suspected that the Lord invented porches and television to make pea-shelling easier. My mother Barbara, as a young bride, was out on her porch one afternoon sweeping when she saw her husband’s Aunt Bess walking down the road with a sack and crying her eyes out, going to her sister Ethel’s, who was Barbara’s mother-in-law. Not being one to impose (at that point), mother assumed the worst and started cooking. After about an hour, with two casseroles and a cake in the oven, she called up Daddy and said, “Jess, your Aunt Bess just went over to Ethel’s just bawling her eyes out. I think Uncle Ed’s finally died.”

So Daddy ran up to Ethel’s house, assessed the situation, came out sweating and said: “Barbara, Ed didn’t die, Bess is just all wrung out over some soap character dying—her and Momma both.” Then Daddy handed her a bag of shelled peas.

“Here,” he said. “I told them to come over for dinner tonight. You need to start watching ‘Days of Our Lives.’”

Sea Lord Faulkner: A Nautical Memory by Howard Duvall, Jr.

If memory serves me correctly, the expedition to locate and raise Mr. Faulkner’s sailboat took place in the spring of 1953. For some reason Mr. Bill had left the boat at anchor at Cole’s Camp on the Sardis Reservoir during the winter months; and in the early spring, it was discovered to have drifted out into the cove and sunk in about eighteen feet of water. The recovery of the boat would not have presented any great problem had Mr. Faulkner called Memphis for a professional diver and rig; however, this would have been too conventional and commercial for his adventuresome mind. Therefore, he chose to make use of local talent, which I’m sure he felt would provide for a much more interesting day on Sardis Lake.

On the appointed morning Billy Ross Brown, a neighbor and close friend of the Faulkners, and I reported for salvage duty at Mr. Bill’s home. Also along was the Browns’ houseboy, Isom Cillum, who would act as all-round handyman for the project, as we were sure that we were in for some heavy work ahead. Upon arriving, we were surprised to find that a new member had been added to the party. His name was V. P. Ferguson; he was a student at Ole Miss, and I think it would be safe to say the “Veep,” as he was locally known, was something of a character. Billy Ross and I were quite familiar with the kimono-wearing, Koran-reading orchestra leader from the University, but we were admittedly quite surprised to see him here primed for the occasion. We were later to learn that V. P., upon hearing of the sinking of the sailboat, had called Mr. Faulkner and offered his services in recovering it. He explained to Mr. Bill that he was preparing for a summer excursion to the Caribbean to dive for black pearls, and that the Sardis outing would be good experience. I’m sure Mr. Bill discounted much of this story, but I’m also sure that he saw possibilities for an interesting day on the lake, and so invited him along. (Whoever says Faulkner had no sense of humor should have been along that day.)

The chief preparation for the outing seemed to have been the securing of enough food to satisfy the appetites of the would be salvage crew. Miss Estelle was in charge of this department and she had already sent Norfleet, the Faulkners’ Negro houseboy, out into the side yard with a large picnic basket of food. With the picnic basket safely secured in the Faulkner family station wagon, the five of us set forth to the Sardis Dam to begin salvage operations, To look over the crew-a Nobel Prize-winning author, two young college friends, a would-be pearl diver, and the faithful Negro houseboy—one could wonder about the prospects for the success of the mission. The route carried us through the University campus out Highway 6 West some eighteen miles, and then about seven miles up a gravel road to Sardis Dam. Our plan was to board the houseboat anchored at the dam and then to travel up the reservoir about five miles to Cole’s Camp, where the sailboat, as has been previously mentioned, lay some eighteen feet below the surface.

I think it would be well to pause here to say a few words about the houseboat which would be our base of operations for the day. Contrary to the general principle of shipbuilding (or in this case, boatbuilding), this vessel was built in the side yard of Colonel Hugh Evans of Oxford, many miles from any body of water. Being a neighbor and friend of Colonel Evans, Mr. Bill became inter ested in the boat and soon was a full-time partner in its construction. Two other families were involved in this venture, namely the Ross Browns and the Ashford Littles. After the completion of the boat came the problem of getting the rather large craft through the narrow streets of Oxford and out the main highway to Sardis Lake without tying up traffic for hours. It was decided to hire a professional mover from Memphis to undertake the task, and at the appointed time the boat was transferred by night to the lake. That morning the owners, their families and interested friends gathered at Sardis to watch her slide down the ways, and down she went, only to bob like a cork on a fishing line. It was quite evident that the boat was riding much too high in the water. The propeller screw did not reach the proper depth. Mr. Bill and his friends put their heads together and the solution was soon reached: put concrete in the bottom of the boat. Concrete was then placed in the hold, and the Minmagary set forth on her maiden voyage to reign as queen of the Sardis Reservoir for many years.

Mr. Bill was indeed master of his ship as we pulled out of the inlet onto the main body of water. After estimating the time of arrival at about an hour, and with Mr. Bill at the wheel, Billy Ross and I settled back in the deck chairs to enjoy the spring morning, I think we were doubly enjoying it because we were cutting classes at the University in order to make the trip. I know, too, that Mr. Bill was relaxed in his khaki pants and military-style khaki shirt, sitting at the wheel and smoking his favorite briar. In sailing and boating on Sardis, he seemed to find the peace and privacy that was more and more of a struggle to obtain after receiving the Nobel Prize.

V. P., always the nervous type, soon tired of watching the shore line go by and asked Mr. Bill if he could take over the wheel. Offering no objection, Mr. Bill let him have it and then joined us on the back deck to relax and discuss the problems of getting to the sailboat. Presently we were interrupted by the clanging of the deck bell and sharp commands being issued by the “Veep” sitting hard by the wheel.

“Full steam ahead; we are approaching the salvage area. We must have more steam,” he shouted into an imaginary tube that led to an equally imaginary engine room. The only person available to heed his commands was Isom, our houseboy turned cabin boy for the occasion, and he was thoroughly mystified by the whole proceeding. I’m quite certain that Isom thought Mr. Ferguson was “tetched in the head,” for he came back to me and said, “Mr. Howard, you know we don’t have no engine room down there, only that 75 marine engine and there sho ain’t nobody down there to hear him.”

It seems that V. P. had just finished some popular novel of the day concerning the rescue of a British submarine down in the South China Sea with all hands aboard, and through his imagination we were the crew pushing full steam ahead to make the res. cue. I believe Mr. Bill thoroughly enjoyed the fantasies of the “Veep” and he was soon resting again in his deck chair, probably assuring himself that he had made the right decision in bringing along Mr. Ferguson.

As we approached the entrance to the cove that led to Cole’s Camp, Mr. Bill took over the wheel again and steered us into position near the sunken boat. There was no real problem in finding the boat because of a safety line that was still attached from the sunken hull to a tree on shore. The plan of action was for us to take down a steel cable attached to a winch on the bow of the houseboat and hook it through an iron ring in the bow of the sail boat. After securing the hook, the idea was to crank the winch, thus pulling the boat to the surface. When this was accomplished, Mr. Bill planned to move the houseboat with the sailboat in tow to a nearby boat ramp, where we could wade in to maneuver the sailboat onto a boat trailer which would be backed into the water, The station wagon would be used to pull boat and trailer out and to Mr. Bill’s backyard drydock for repairs and overhaul.

All of this seemed relatively simple except for the fact that V. P. began complicating things from the start. For example, after his first dive he came up on deck, bowed in true Arabian Night style before Mr. Bill and exclaimed, “Oh, Captain Ahab, there is an octopus down below guarding the boat. Do you happen to have a machete aboard that might afford me some protection?”

Much to our surprise, Mr. Bill, with his usual composure, dis appeared below deck, came up with a machete and gave it to Ferguson, who immediately dived over the side with the weapon and disappeared below the surface while Isom stood by in wide-eyed wonder.

Just before noon, the hook was finally secured to the sailboat, but “Captain Ahab” decided to wait until after lunch to bring it to the surface. Isom broke out the picnic basket and began serving the food, keeping one eye, I’m sure, over the side for any sign of the octopus. Snakes were no problem for Isom, but an octopus was something else!

About halfway through lunch we heard the sound of someone on the other side of the lake trying to get our attention, and before any of us could answer, V. P. jumped upon the top deck and began wigwagging signals with a couple of towels. Before anyone knew what was going on, we observed an appreciable number of slightly disreputable looking fellows approaching, and within a short time the houseboat was boarded by what turned out to be the entire membership of V. P.’s dance band. It seems that V. P. had made slight mention of the expedition to his colleagues, and had in fact invited them to join him for lunch. They made short work of the contents of the picnic basket, and then they spread out all over the boat for an afternoon of sunbathing. I must say, at this point, that for a man who enjoyed his privacy, Mr. Bill seemed to take the whole affair in a very calm and understanding manner. The taciturn Nobel Prize-winner, in quiet and sly fashion, maintained his aplomb while V. P. all but took command of the situation.

The rest of the afternoon went by somewhat uneventfully with only the routine of securing the sailboat to the side of the houseboat and loading it on the trailer as described earlier. At dusk the sailboat was placed on the trailer and towed to its drydock in Faulkner’s backyard.

Some several days later Mr. Faulkner invited the group down to his house for a lawn supper, and I remember that the highlight of the evening was Mr. Bill’s dancing the soft shoe with Paul Pittman, one of the Ole Miss students.

William Faulkner spent many hours of sheer pleasure in the little sailboat that went to the bottom off Cole’s Landing and that was raised to sail again by Faulkner and a group of college students on that happy and carefree day. He usually referred to it as “the sloop.”

One afternoon while he, Miss Estelle, Hunter Little, and I were cruising, dark clouds appeared in the northwest and it was soon obvious that a squall was imminent. Fishermen, we observed, were scurrying shoreward. Faulkner calmly dismissed the idea of a squall and was maneuvering the sloop down the lake when a gust hit the craft and almost upset it. Life preservers were passed around. Faulkner declined his. Another gust took his hat, and Hunter went overboard to retrieve it and was almost drowned. After he was pulled aboard and matters were as much in hand as circumstances allowed, Faulkner called to me, “Howard, hand me a preserver. I am getting a bit chilly.”

In looking back over the years to the event just related, it becomes more apparent that the people who knew Faulkner best, outside of his own family, were the young people who grew up around the Faulkner home, as children playing with Jill, his daughter, later dancing and eating at her parties, and sharing many carefree moments with the man we all knew as Mr. Bill.


My Father

Jesse L. Yancy, Jr. was an attorney, politician, and humanitarian who served the people of Bruce, Calhoun County, and Mississippi from 1956 until his death in 1970

Born in Springville, Mississippi on Jan. 17, 1926, Yancy moved to Bruce ten years later, where his father, Jesse Lee Yancy, Sr. had established a general store. He graduated from Bruce High School in 1944, joined the Army Air Corps in 1945, and served overseas in the Pacific. He attended the University of Mississippi School of Business and School of Law, earning his J.D. in 1951. In 1952 he married Barbara Young. They had three children.

Yancy was first elected to office in 1956 as district attorney for the Third Circuit Court District. During the Meredith Crisis at the University of Mississippi, Yancy entered the national spotlight when a Lafayette County grand jury issued an indictment against Chief United States Marshall James P. McShane, Meredith’s escort to registration at the University, for inciting a riot.

While serving as D.A., Yancy became president of the Mississippi Prosecutors Association. Elected to the Senate in 1968, during his first term Yancy, as chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, guided the state’s first Open Election Law to passage.

A member of the Senate Commission on Appropriations, he wrote and gained approval for the Idle Funds Bill, which authorized the investment of in place funding for the state, a key piece of legislation that has garnered Mississippi millions of much-needed dollars for over four decades.

Yancy served as an attorney for the City of Bruce for 17 years. His most influential act in that capacity came in 1961, when Bruce had outgrown its fledgling infrastructure, and the city was badly in need of repairs and updates to its streets, water, and sewer systems.

Yancy commandeered a grant of $25,000 for the city to hire Cook Coggin, an engineering firm in Tupelo, to conduct a survey of what repairs and improvements were needed. On completion of this study, the city secured a loan of $500,000 to fund the improvements. Yancy helped Bruce to grow into a clean, attractive town, appealing both to current and potential citizens as well as businesses and industry.

He was a president of the Bruce Rotary Club, the Bruce Chamber of Commerce, the Calhoun County Bar Association, and a founder and commander of VFW Post 5571. He served on the Pushmataha Council of the Boy Scouts of America, and taught Sunday school at the Bruce United Methodist Church.

Jess Jr.’s lasting legacy is a colorful generosity encompassing all in a vision of community, unity, and compassion.

The Man Who Loved Christmas

First published in the Calhoun County Journal Dec. 20, 1984, this memoir of my father, Jesse L. Yancy, Jr., was written fourteen years after his death by his friend and political partner, Sellers Gale Denley. Jess Jr. was a remarkable man in a difficult time, colorful, vibrant, and generous, his life a vision of community, unity, and compassion.

If there was ever a man who loved Christmas, it was the late Sen. Jesse Yancy of Bruce. The word “loved” is used advisedly. For there are those who might be said to “enjoy” Christmas, “respect” Christmas, “anticipate” Christmas, etc., but Jesse loved Christmas. His enthusiasm might have been regarded as extreme; except that was the way Jesse was about most things. He worked hard. Then he played hard. More than likely this approach to life was a primary cause of his untimely death on Aug. 26, 1970, at the age of 44, from a massive heart attack. Prior to assuming the senate post he served as district attorney of the third circuit court district for eight years and was city attorney in Bruce for 17 years. So it wasn’t unusual that the new city library was named in his honor.

And the way that Jesse launched the Christmas season was not particularly unique or unusual, either. It began with a big party with his friends at the Bruce community building. Funds were solicited for a live band and a case or so of assorted spirits and goodies, with a few dollars left over for another project. You see, Jesse had a secret Christmas vice. He liked to dress up in a funny red suit, hide his face behind a mask of white whiskers and, on Christmas Eve, visit the area in South Bruce where most black citizens lived.

Before each of these visits his automobile was filled with candy, nuts, fruit, toys and firecrackers. In the early 1960s it was all the Christmas some of the children had. The ritual started in the ’50s when he dressed up to play Santa for his own children. His family decided he should also go see the children of the black woman who worked for them. His appearance was an immediate hit. It was the Christmas of 1960, when I started helping him with the project, that he said he realized back then on his first trip that most of the black children had never really seen Santa Claus. So it became an annual event, growing in scope each year, to make the Christmas Eve appearance. The addition of toys and other goodies was a part of the evolution. The project was financed with any excess funds from the party, plus contributions from several of us who usually helped, with Jesse taking up the slack. It started each year with several trips to area wholesalers to purchase the large volume of goodies needed for some 250 to 350 children.

The bounty would be hauled in and the Yancy children—Cindy, Tom and Lee, often assisted by cousins Bill and Bob Cooper—and others would assemble individual sacks. Then, on Christmas Eve, Jesse would put on his Santa suit, we would load up a vehicle or two—the most memorable and utilitarian being a dark green Mustang convertible— and begin the appointed rounds. There must have been a lookout, for as soon as the first vehicle crossed the railroad tracks, which marked the boundary of the black community, several young boys would take over the lead position. With wide-eyed excitement they would precede the caravan down Murphree Street shouting: “Here he comes. Here comes Santa. Here he comes.” And for the next hour or so Jesse would be in his Christmas glory.

He handed out presents to those close by while keeping an eye out for those too shy to come up to him, so he could seek them out later. He knew quite a few of them by name. And almost all of the parents knew Jesse and whispered their thanks. But if the children knew him they didn’t let on. And neither did they let on if they sometimes got a whiff of the Old Charter Santa and his helpers found useful in warding off the cold and other miseries.

The custom died with Jesse. The party lasted another year or two, and some of us talked about continuing the Santa Claus visit. But, we rationalized, it was 1970 and the children were being encouraged to visit Santa on the Square, sponsored by the city as a part of the Lion’s Club Christmas parade. So we didn’t.  It has been 35 years, but every Christmas about this time I begin to get a little bit anxious. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably need to do. Like you feel when you know there is something you probably will never get to do again.

It has been suggested that one can sometimes recapture the spirit of Christmases-past by recording remembrances like these. I am confident that Jesse would overlook my indiscretion in writing about it now.

Jess Jr. (left) with his brother-in-law Jim Young as Santa.

Ars Voces: Euphus Ruth – Time’s Eye

When I go somewhere to take photographs, I sort of have something in mind, but it has to feel right or speak to me for me to actually make a wet collodion photograph. I may shoot some snapshots on film or take some documentary shots of things I am recording over time, but for the plates it has to be that feeling of connection with time and place, past and present.

This is a scanned copy of an 11×14″ red glass ambrotype I made at Poplar Springs Cemetery in Calhoun County in April of 2012. I had been staying in Bruce at my parent’s and decided to go up to Poplar Springs where my great-grandparents (Starling Monroe and Nancy Ruth) are buried..

After walking around the cemetery for a long while, reading the gravestones and making a few snapshots with a hand-held camera I decided I would not set up the wet collodion. I got in the car to back out of the cemetery entrance for some reason instead of driving through.

That is when I saw this image. It hit me: there it was the old fence I had noticed and not noticed my entire life of visiting there. I could see my relatives’ gravestones in the background but what grabbed me was the fence, the plants, the foliage: that feeling.

I pulled back in and proceeded to set up the portable darkbox, get the chemicals ready, and mount the camera on the tripod. In about 30 minutes I was looking through the camera’s ground glass at this image. In another 15 minutes I was washing the chemicals from the glass and feeling good about the plate.

In 2014 the cemetery caretakers in their infinite wisdom totally removed the fence and cleaned the bank off, destroying some of the visual reminders of 50 plus years of visiting this cemetery. Nothing lasts forever; that is one of the reasons I’m a photographer.

This plate is not for sale.

11′ X 14″ red glass ambrotype made at Poplar Springs Cemetery in the Red Community near Bruce, Ms., (Calhoun County) in April of 2012.

Lowery’s Ivory-Bills

George H. Lowery, Jr., (1913-1978) was founder and director of the Museum of Natural Science at Louisiana State University, and one of the most respected ornithologists in the nation. This account of his sighting of ivory-bills near Tallulah, Louisiana, is from his Louisiana Birds (1955; LSU Press).

One of the most exciting ornithological experiences of my life occurred on the rainy Christmas morning of 1935. On the previous evening my father and I, with two companions, had entered the Singer Preserve, near Tallulah.

This area was at the time a great virgin hardwood bottom land forest. We were in quest of America’s rarest bird, a species that few living ornithologists had ever seen except as a museum specimen. Indeed, until the year before, ornithologists had come to believe that this, the largest of all woodpeckers in the United States (total length twenty-one inches), had joined the ranks of the Dodo, Labrador Duck, and Passenger Pigeon.

It was a comment to this effect in the offices of the Louisiana Wild Life and Fisheries Commission that prompted a quick denial from Mr. Mason Spencer, a resident of Tallulah, who happened to be present. So incredulous was everyone of his assertion that Ivory- bills still lived near Tallulah that a permit was immediately issued to him to shoot one this with the certainty that he would produce nothing more than a “log-god,” or Pileated Woodpecker. Mr. Spencer, however, promptly vindicated himself, to everyone’s amazement, by securing a male Ivory-bill. The specimen was mounted and is still on display in the main foyer of the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans.

After several unsuccessful attempts to see this great woodpecker myself in the Singer Preserve in the summer of 1934, I was still trying on the Christmas Day mentioned above. My companions and I were out at daybreak, quietly stalking through that magnificent hardwood forest with our ears strained for only one sound-the high-pitched nasal yamp, yamp, or as some people interpret it, kent, kent, of an Ivory-bill. We saw flock after flock of Wild Turkeys, dozens of deer, and scores of “log-gods,” but no sign of the bird that we really sought.

A slow drizzling rain that began to fall did not seem to better our prospects, but suddenly, far in the distance through the great wood, a telltale sound reached our ears. Approaching cautiously in the direction indicated by the calls, we soon beheld not one but four Ivory-bills feeding on a tall dead snag! There were two males and two females, which, with their powerful bills, were proceeding to demolish the bark on this dead tree, in search, no doubt, for flat-headed beetles, or “betsy-bugs.”

I went back several times to this place, once when Drs. A. A. Allen and Paul Kellogg took motion pictures and sound recordings of an Ivory-bill at its nest. Once I even caught, before it hit the ground, a piece of wood that an Ivory-bill, in the tree above me, chipped off with a vigorous chisel-like blow of its beak.

But, at least in the Tallulah forest, and maybe everywhere in Louisiana, all that is something of the past. The great forests where Ivory-bills were struggling to survive from 1935 to 1938 are now gone. The last virgin hardwood bottom land swamp on the North American continent fell to the ax because not enough sentiment could be raised to save it! The last authenticated report of the bird in the state is of a lone female that lingered in this area in the spring of 1943 after the felling that same year of a tree that contained a nest and eggs.

It is possible that no future generation of Americans will be able to spend a Christmas morning, or any morning, watching four Ivory-billed Woodpeckers go about their daily routine amid huge redgums whose diameters are greater than the distance a man can stretch his arms. I wonder what natural beauties we shall have, aside from the mountains and the sky, a hundred years from now!

(The video below was shot by Arthur Allen in 1935, very near where Lowery and his companions saw them the same year. This video, along with Allen’s photographs, and audio recordings, constitute the last documented, definite sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker. The last uncontested sighting was in 1944, but on October 16, 2023, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said they are giving themselves more time to consider all the evidence before declaring the ivory-bill extinct.)

Southern Recipes from The Great American Writer’s Cookbook

“In recent months I have looked forward to the mail with an anticipation and excitement I’ve not felt since, in the summer of 1946 as a ten-year old, I sent off penny postcards from Oxford, Mississippi, to Hollywood, California, and waited anxiously for autographed, black and white glossies of Alan Ladd and Jeanne Crain, Clark Gable and Betty Grable, Cornell Wilde and Yvonne de Carlo, Flicka, and Lassie to be delivered at my front door. The letters I’ve received in the past six months are even better.”

So writes Dean Faulkner Wells in her forward to The Great American Writer’s Cookbook (Yoknapatawpha Press, 1981. Dean Faulkner Wells and her husband Larry collected over 200 recipes sent by 175 writers of novels, short stories, history, commentary, plays, poetry, reportage, columns, and criticism, all among the finest of their generation. Most are predictably far better at writing than cooking, as hinted at in the introductory quote by John Cheever: “The only time I ever go into a kitchen is when I’m being chased out the back door.” The majority of the recipes are serious; exceptions include John McPhee’s “Count Zeppelin Pancakes,” Larry L. King’s “Party Boy’s Midnight Snack Puree,” David Halberstam’s “Cracked Crab à la McNamara,” and Irwin Shaw’s Italian Delight.”

“Many of the writers who sent recipes questioned the title,” Dean wrote, “advising me to change it to The American Writers’ Great Cookbook, or The Minor Regional American Writers’ Cookbook, or even concluding, ‘I heard that there once was a Great American Writer, but he died.’ She adds that the book is “in a small way a tribute to the men and women who have given me, in their distinguished work over the years, so many hours of pleasure and edification.”

In his introduction, Craig Claiborne writes that when attending a party of glittering literati in the Hamptons, he was astounded to find William Styron staring at him and pouting.

“You,” he said accusingly, “are the one critic who hurt me most.” I frowned. Me? A literary critic. He must be thinking of another man with my name. “You,” he continued, “criticized my recipe for fried chicken.” I laughed when he recounted the basis for my alleged attack.

 It seems that some years ago there was published a book called The Artists and Writers Cook Book, and in it was his recipe for southern fried chicken. I should have learned long ago that there is nothing that can come nearer to creating lifelong enmity, if not to say bloodshed and worse violence, than one Southerner criticizing another Southerner’s fried chicken. Bill, of course, is from Virginia and I from Mississippi. It seems that the crux for my attack was that he had recommended cooking that chicken in bacon fat in lieu of lard blended with butter which my mother used and a technique which I in my turn borrowed. He also said, as I recall, that frozen chicken might be used. And that, I found unpardonable. In any event, before the evening which included a pitcher of martinis, we had a fine old time swapping recipes for grits and corn pones and hushpuppies.

Here’s a selection of recipes from Southern writers.

Barry Hannah: Three Bean Soup

This is a recipe that I learned from my aunts when I was little. It’s plain, staple food that can feed a big gang of people-friends, lovers, kids, relatives, everybody! I call it “Three Bean Soup.”

You start with three kinds of beans: kidney, white (navy) and black- eyed peas. Take a big-real big-pot of water, dump ’em in, and add some shredded onions. Sauté either pork or beef, cut up in little chunks, and dump it in. Bring it to a boil. Add salt mixed with pepper, to taste. Turn up the heat and bring it up again. Add water if needed; dump in a small bag of rice, and bring it up. Boil until it thickens. For extra seasoning, I sometimes add some crab-boil, Tabasco, or whatever’s handy on the shelf. Serve it with French bread and butter. It’s all the nutrition you can stand.

Shelby Foote: Viennese Boiled Beer

This is a two-step recipe, long-drawn-out but easy all the way. What’s more the result is well worth the trouble, for what you get is nothing less, I think-though I may be genetically prejudiced; one of my grandfathers came to Mississippi from Vienna-than the best main dish in all the world.

Step One, ingredients:
3 lbs. chicken parts, preferably
backs and wings.
1 veal knuckle.
5 large carrots, sliced.
2 medium turnips, quartered. 6 sprigs parsley.
2 bay leaves.
3 large onions, quartered.
8 stalks celery, sliced.
10 whole peppercorns. 6 whole allspice. 2 T. salt.

Place the above in an 8- or 10-quart stock pot. Add 5 quarts water; cover and bring to a boil, then reduce to a winking simmer for three hours, skimming and degreasing if necessary. Strain into another pot and keep the resultant four quarts of stock hot on the back of the stove for use in Step Two.

Step Two, ingredients:
5 lbs. boned beef brisket, whole and well-layered with fat. 18 small white onions, peeled.
12 small carrots, trimmed. 12 small potatoes, peeled. 6 wedges young cabbage.
Place brisket in stock pot, pour in hot broth from Step One; let simmer gently, covered, for three hours. Then add onions and carrots; let simmer another half hour, while potatoes and cabbage wedges are boiling in separate uncovered pots of salted water.

Serving: Remove brisket to a large well-and-tree platter; arrange vegetables around it and ladle stock generously over all. At table, carve brisket into medium thin slices; serve each plate with two slices of the beef and a fair portion of the vegetables, spooning more stock from the platter. Have handy a bowl of coarse salt, a pepper mill, and plenty of good cold beer. The best accompanying condiments are Dijon mustard, applesauce, and sour cream laced with horseradish. Serves six hearty eaters, most of whom will come back for seconds- and some for thirds. Leftover broth makes an excellent soup for future meals or will serve as the basic stock for preparing sauces.

Borden Deal: Southern Fried Chicken Like It Ought to Be . . . Along with ‘Erbal ‘Ushpuppies

This recipe is not an “old family favorite,” but an invention of my latter-day bachelor status.

Most Southern Fried Chicken you will encounter is not the delicate dish it’s cracked up to be. The culprit, as a usual thing, is the heavy, wet batter applied to the bird so thickly that’s all you can taste. It was precisely my dissatisfaction with “the old family favorite” that led to my creation of the following recipe:
First, dismember your bird: I do it in the country style, removing the wishbone intact, separating thigh from drumstick, trimming off the rear- ward tallow along with the pope’s nose, and surgically removing the neck (all of which I save for homemade soup). Rub the parts with a crushed clove of garlic.
Second, measure out nine tablespoonfuls of corn meal, (preferably stone ground), add three tablespoonfuls of plain flour (for the sole pur- pose of persuading the corn meal to stick better), then sprinkle a modi- cum of salt, two or three teaspoons of crushed fines herbes, a judicious measure of decent paprika to taste, and mix well.

Roll the chicken parts in the dry mixture and drop into a skillet half- filled with simmering corn oil. (You will need two large skillets). Save out the liver and gizzard for later insertion.
It is essential, for achieving the proper golden texture, to cover the skillets for five minutes; turn the chicken, cover for a second five minutes; then allow the chicken to finish cooking uncovered.

As soon as the chicken is underway, add the proper amount of milk and baking powder commensurate with the amount of left-over corn meal (you may also wish to add a bit more fines herbes also), and with your very own hands (a utensil will not do) mix the resultant mess into a firm batter. After flouring your hands, roll out between your palms the ‘erbal ‘ush- puppies in small balls about the size of a large marble. You should have about ten or so when you are done.

When you have turned the chicken pieces and are ready to cover them for the second time, drop the ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies in and around the chicken parts… along with the liver and the gizzard. This should bring them off at approximately the same time as the chicken.
(The traditional hushpuppy is “spoon dropped” into the cooking oil, but that’s hard to do along with the frying chicken. You can cook them separately, but your ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies won’t then pick up flavor from the meat).

Be sure to turn the ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies with a spoon from time to time so they will rise and cook evenly. When they, along with the chicken, are crisp and golden, serve piping hot (with a Scottish bagpiper, if your amenities extend so far) and you have the perfect one-dish meal: South- ern Fried Chicken Like It Ought To Be, with my special creation, ‘erbal ‘ushpuppies.

And it’s just as good cold the next day.

Harry Crews: Snake Steak

Take one diamondback rattle snake.

(Fifteen feet of garden hose, a little gasoline in a capped jar, a croker sack, and a long stick will be all you’ll need to take the snake. On a cold day, 32 degrees or colder, find the hole of a gopher-the Southerner’s name for a land tortoise. Run the hose down the hole until it is all the way to the bottom. Pour a teaspoon of gasoline into the hose. Cover the end of the hose with your mouth and blow. Shortly, the rattlesnake will wander out of the hole. Put the stick in the middle of his body, pick him up, and drop him in the sack. On the way home, don’t sling the sack over your shoulder, and generally try not to get struck through the cloth.)

Gut and skin the snake. No particular skill is needed for either job. Cut off the head six inches behind the eyes. Cut off the tail 12 inches above the last rattle. Rip him open along the stomach and take out everything you see. Peel him like a banana using a pair of pliers as you would to skin a catfish. Cut the snake into one inch steaks. Soak in vinegar for ten minutes. Drain and dry. Sprinkle with hot sauce, any of the brands out of New Iberia, Louisiana. Roll in flour and deep fry, being careful not to overcook. Salt to taste and serve with whatever you ordinarily eat with light, delicate meat.

Figure one snake per guest. Always better to have too much than too little when you’re eating something good.

Hodding Carter: Betty Carter’s Barbecued Shrimp

Hodding was the cook in our family at Feliciana—he and Phalange Word. Phalange would cook-and serve a perfect dinner for ten and leave just before the guests. When they had all gone Hodding would go into the kitchen, open the refrigerator door, look at the dabs of left overs so recently put away and announce mournfully that here was all this good food going to waste. Then, getting out a gumbo pot, he would fill it with whatever he saw, seasoning it as he went and thus creating one of Daddy’s Incredible Ice Box Soups. No recipe ever written down, no two ever alike. (I ate one I had taken out of the deep freeze while he was sail- ing to La Coruña. It was almost cannibalistic of me, it tasted so much like him!)

My forte is easy easies served informally and the best of these is Bar- becued Shrimp, served right from the baking pan with French bread. A green salad and beer and/or coffee and perhaps apple pie for dessert (someone else can make that!)-the smallest possible time investment. But Good!

5 lbs. headless raw shrimp, unpeeled, frozen or fresh, any size from medium on up.
1 pound of oleo (not butter, which burns)
Black pepper-have a fresh can ready
2 teaspoons garlic salt

Thaw the shrimp, if frozen; drain off excess water, spread in two layers in baking pan. Melt the oleo and pour it over the shrimp. Pick up your can of pepper and start shaking it over the shrimp, blanketing the whole sur- face so the shrimp disappear. Then do it again. Sprinkle the garlic salt over the surface. (The trick is to use more pepper than you think you should.)

Bake in 350 degrees about 25 minutes. At end of 15 minutes take a long spoon and turn the shrimp so those on top are on the bottom. Peel and sample one shrimp. Judge whether to cook another five minutes or ten.

Required is a heavy trivet to protect the table from the oven heat of the pan—I use a baking pan a bit larger than a 3-quart pyrex.

When done, take the baking pan directly to the center of the table where the guests will be seated. The diners serve their plates with a spoon, then tear off hunks of French bread and dunk in the liquid in the pan, repeating as their appetite suggests and as long as the sauce remains.

Serves six without trepidation on the hostess’ part, seven adequately and eight perhaps.

Reynolds Price: Pimento Cheese

I’ve failed in a long effort to trace the origins of pimento cheese, but it was the peanut butter of my childhood-homemade by Mother. I suspect it’s a Southern invention (I’ve seldom met a non-Southerner who knew what it was, though they take to it on contact); in any case, prepared ver- sions can be bought to this day in Southern supermarkets-most of them made apparently from congealed insecticides. Last year, once I’d ac- quired a Cuisinart, I rebelled and tried to reconstruct Mother’s recipe. I’ve made a change or two, in the interest of midlife zest; but I think any child of the thirties and forties (from, say, Baltimore down) will recall the glory and bless my name.

Grate a pound or more of extra sharp cheddar cheese. Chop coarsely one jar of pimentos (four ounces, more if you like) with one or two cloves of garlic. Mix into the grated cheese with plenty of freshly ground pepper and a minimum of salt; then gradually add enough homemade mayonnaise (maybe three tablespoons) to form a stiff chunky paste. Sometimes I add a little lemon juice or a very little wine vinegar or Tabasco-nothing to disguise the bare cheese and peppers and good mayonnaise. I’ve been caught eating a pound in two days (though it keeps well), especially if life is hard. On rough brown bread, it’s a sovereign nerve-salve.

James J. Kilpatrick: Black-Eyed Peas and Stewed Tomatoes

Go into the pea patch about 4 o’clock of an August afternoon, and pick half a peck of black-eyed peas and two or three ripe tomatoes. Then repair to the verandah (or deck, or porch as the case may be) and sit in the shade sipping some Tennessee whisky.

The pea pods should be about as long as a fresh copy pencil, fully packed but not turned brown. Using your thumbnail, gouge each precious pearl from its velvet case. When you are done, put the peas on to simmer. Throw in a nice hunk of ham hock or a couple of pieces of bacon. After the peas have simmered for an hour or so, quarter the tomatoes and toss them in. Salt and pepper. A couple of licks of Tabasco will im- prove the batch. Under no circumstances whatever is sugar permitted. A small onion, finely diced, is allowed.

When it gets too dark to see the label on the whisky, remove pot from stove and serve the delectable mess over hot cornsticks. Serves one.

Roy Blount, Jr.: Garlic Grits and A Song to Grits

I have cooked a few things, but I don’t remember how I did any of them. This recipe means something to me, though, because I got it from Maureen Dees, of Mathews, Alabama, who served me and her then-hus- band Morris some of it in their house, which once had a cross burned outside it. I always wanted to eat grits in a house that had had a cross burned outside it.

1⁄2 cup milk
1 tablespoon salt
1 cup quick cooking grits 1⁄2 cup margarine
2 eggs beaten
23 package garlic cheese, finely diced
2 to 3 cups cornflakes crushed 1⁄2 cup melted butter

Combine 1⁄2 cup boiling water with milk, salt, grits, margarine, eggs and half the cheese in casserole dish. Stir over low heat until cheese melts. Top with cornflakes. Pour butter over cornflakes. Sprinkle with re- maining cheese. Cook in 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Yields six servings.

In between bites, sing stanzas of my poem about grits, called “Grits Poem,” or, “A Song to Grits.”

When my mind’s unsettled, When I don’t feel spruce, When my nerves get frazzled, When my flesh gets loose-
What knits
Me back together’s grits.
Grits with gravy,
Grits with cheese.
Grits with bacon,
Grits with peas.
Grits with ham,
Grits with a minimum Of two over-medium
Eggs mixed in ’em: um!
Grits, grits, it’s
Grits I sing-
Grits fits
In with anything.
Rich and poor, black and white, Lutheran and Campbellite,
Jews and Southern Jesuits, All acknowledge buttered grits.
Give me two hands, give me my wits, Give me 40 pounds of grits.
True grits,
More grits,
Fish, grits and collards.
Life is good where grits are swallered. GRITS!

Scottie Fitzgerald Smith: Bloody Bull

Everybody has heard of a Bloody Mary or a Bloody Shame (without vodka), and many have heard of a Bullshot (bouillon with vodka), but better than either on a hot summer holiday, when you can take a nap after lunch, is a cross between them known as a Bloody Bull.

My father and Hemingway are alleged to have invented the Bloody Bull while arguing about a Faulkner novel in the Ritz Bar after Hemingway’s return from Pamplona. My father thought that Mr. Faulkner was one of the greatest writers who ever lived, and it would have been quite characteristic of him to have defended this position while horizontal, if necessary.

1 large can V-8 juice
2 cans bouillon
Juice of 4 lemons
Lemon pepper
Worcestershire sauce Tabasco Celery salt
Stalk of celery
Mix all these, stir vigorously, add vodka, and pour over cracked ice. The celery stalk is not necessary but adds a touch of elegance.

David Donald: Date Loaf

One of my favorite recipes, which my mother gave me and which in turn her mother gave her, is for a Date Loaf.
Here are the ingredients:

3 cups white sugar
1⁄2 pound package of dates
1 cup of chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)
1 cup sweet milk
1 teaspoon vanilla flavoring 2 tablespoons butter.

Boil the sugar, butter, and milk until a soft ball is formed when dropped in cold water. Turn off the heat and add dates and nuts, then cook slowly, stirring all the time until the dates have completely cooked to pieces. Take off the heat, add vanilla, and stir until a little of the mixture will not stick when dropped on a damp cloth (or waxed paper). Pour in rolls (i.e., like a long, thin loaf) on two damp cloths. Roll up the cloths, let cool, and slice with a sharp knife.

The result is a wonderful, rich, and very, very filling dessert. About two small slices will hold the most ravenous adolescent for a whole afternoon.

Elizabeth Spencer: Golden Dream

This is my grandmother Elizabeth Young McCain’s recipe for Golden Dream, which was my favorite dessert when I was a child, and still is! Beat the yolks of 4 eggs slightly and add 1⁄2 cup sugar, the juice of one orange. Grate rind of 4 of it, also juice of one lemon. Cook in a double boiler until thick, then beat in the whites of the eggs beaten stiff. Cook a couple of minutes and if desired two teaspoonfuls of dissolved gelatine may be added and the whole poured into a mould. Chill till firm and serve with whipped cream.

You can also pour it into individual molds, of course.

Turner Catledge: Pork Balls Prytania

Tidbits named for the house on Prytania Street in New Orleans where many have been cooked and enjoyed tidbits between many drinks, where they fit in best.

1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1pound hot sausage
3 cups Bisquick

Mix all ingredients, roll into bite-size balls, place on cookie sheet. Bake for 12 minutes in an oven heated to 350 degrees. Uncooked balls can be stored in deep freezer and heated when needed.

Eudora Welty: Charles Dickens’s Eggnog

This is the eggnog we always started Christmas Day off with. I have the recipe my mother used, though she always referred to it as “Charles Dickens’s Recipe.”

6 egg yolks, well beaten
3 Tbs. powdered sugar, sifted 1 cup Bourbon
1 pt. whipped cream
6 egg whites, whipped into peaks but not dry
nutmeg if desired

Add the powdered sugar gradually to the beaten egg yolks. Add the Bourbon a little at a time to the mixture. Add the whipped cream and the beaten egg whites, folding gently in. Chill. Serve in silver cups with a little grated nutmeg on top if desired.


Charley Pride’s Baked Beans

As DA of Lafayette County in October, 1962, my father refused to sign a subpoena on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith at Ole Miss issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace.”

He loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff; by the time I was ten, I knew damn near every one of Hank William’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride” after hearing Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.

Country music in the mid-1960s was–and largely still is–very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for him to listen to while he roared around in his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself, something he wouldn’t look to hard at, a picture of a cowboy hat or something.

Then there came a day when they were driving somewhere or the other, and Daddy was singing along with Charley, and Momma  turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, did you know he’s black?” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.

Soon after that, Charley made headlines as the first black entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and of course, Jess Jr. told everybody he had been listening to him for years.

Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley.

It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.

Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans

8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (more if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained

Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.

Daddy’s Books

My dad had a soft touch for door-to-door salesmen. I can still see him laid back on the couch in his boxers listening to some guy spell out his hard-luck story. I doubt if any of them left without an order and a couple of dollars in their pocket. We had three sets of encyclopedias and all kinds of serials put out by national publication like Time/Life or the Reader’s Digest. Our home was full of books full of words and pictures, and I spent hours poring over them when as a boy.

It wasn’t until a decade after he died that I began to explore the other books, the old faded covers and the tattered paperbacks. There I found the father I didn’t know, a man beyond my comprehension as a child, and certainly beyond mine as an old man. Still the books set a mold of time, of place, and more so of my father, the contours set by such as a raggedly paperback edition of Greek poetry in English translation in which I found underlined the epigram of Simonides that Senator John F. Kennedy cited in his speech at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in October, 1960: “Passerby: Tell Sparta we fell faithful to her service.”

Jess Jr. had a professional connection with the Kennedys, since in his capacity as District Attorney for Lafayette County in 1962 he had to juggle the political ramifications of a grand jury indictment against James J.P. McShane, who led the federal agents who escorted James Meredith, the first African American student at University of Mississippi. The indictment was eventually revoked.

He had a copy of C.H. Cramer’s Royal Bob: The Life of Robert Ingersoll. Ingersoll, an American lawyer, Civil War veteran, political leader and orator during the Golden Age of Free Thought (roughly from 1875 to 1914), was noted for his broad range of cultural activities and his defense of agnosticism. Another book relating to Jess Jr.’s political leanings on a more local level is Kirwan’s Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876-1925, a solid nod to his political roots in the hills of north Mississippi.

One of the most puzzling yet astoundingly revealing works I found among my father’s books was Richard Brautigan’s first novel. A Confederate General from Big Sur, published in 1964. Jess Jr. was a student of the Civil War not only as a Southerner but as a politician since its ramifications were being felt with intensity in his lifetime.

In Brautigan’s novel, which takes place in 1957, a man named Mellon believes he is a descendant of a Confederate general from Big Sur, California. There is no proof of his existence, although Mellon meets a drifter who has also heard of this general. Mellon seeks the truth of his own modern-day struggle in the United States in light of the Confederacy’s past struggle with the Union. Most likely, my father picked this book up on the basis of its title alone, but I like to believe he read it in its entirety.

He had Faulkner’s A Fable and The Town, two very divergent works; Jess Jr. knew Faulkner’s attorney Phil Stone and might have met the writer, but I feel he read Faulkner’s works more out of a desire to understand how this man from Lafayette County came to win a Nobel Prize than for any other reason. His copy of Welty’s Golden Apples, I found puzzling, but then he kept his ear to the ground and would have heard of Welty’s rising star.

I like to believe he was just a man who liked to read, and words became a part of who he was, but Jess Jr. could well be considered a learned man. As such, he was quite different from his peers, who included the political lights of his day as well as an across-the-board array of businessmen and dignitaries.

With a handful of books for a thread, so he will always be a maze to the man I am, but not to the boy I was who loved him with every fiber of my being.

Daddy at the Door

Jess Jr. was charismatic, spontaneous, and imbued with a zest for life. This made his wife, my mother Barbara, very happy, but kept her in suspended apprehension.

She told us the story of their invitation to a party at a prominent home in Oxford. Barbara was nervous, but Jess took great pains to assure her that as district attorney he worked with the host, a judge.

Once they reached the door, Jess turned to Barbara, winked, and said, “Watch this.” Then he rang the bell.

“My heart just sank to my shoes,” she’d say. When the door opened, Jess walked in, raised his arms in the air, and said, “We are trying to have a prayer meeting in the house down the street, and your drunken carryin-ons are disrupting our communion with the Lord God Almighty!”

This being when Mississippi, was dry, the assemblage of well-heeled Oxonians and semi-reputable Ole Miss academics froze. Mother said she could hear the traffic on the Square .

She was about to die when the host stuck his head out the kitchen door and said, “Jess, quit scaring the hell out of everybody, get a drink, and get Barbara one, too. God knows she needs it.”

“I miss him so much,” she’d say.